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  • Hanna Bajwa

Burkina Faso: Politics by the Gun


'Place des nations unies' in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

Over the last 17 months, West Africa has seen four military coups. First, in August 2020, army officers deposed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in Mali. Then, less than five months ago, soldiers in Guinea announced the removal of President Alpha Condé from office. The military also took over in Chad last year after President Idriss Deby died fighting rebels on the battlefield in the country's north. And now, these actions have been repeated again in Burkina Faso, as the military proclaimed the overthrow of President Roch Kaboré.

Similarly, to Mali, Mr Kaboré’s removal was fuelled by discontent and concerns amongst security forces over the inability to deal with the growing militants linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group. Militant attacks that began over seven years ago have killed over 2000 people and forced around 1.5 million people to leave their homes in Burkina Faso. Anti-government protests that demanded Kaboré’s resignation occurred after an attack in the village of Solhan in June 2021, when over 130 citizens were killed by militants from Mali. Another attack on the northern Inata military base in November 2021 resulted in more than 49 members of security forces and four civilians being killed, which heightened the anger towards Kaboré and the Burkinabé government.

Kaboré was originally elected in 2015, after the ousting of long-serving President Blaise Compaoré, pledging to unify the country. During this time, armed groups established their presence in Burkina Faso by taking advantage of the country’s weak borderland security and lack of humanitarian presence. The number of attacks by Islamist groups in Burkina Faso has risen from nearly 500 in 2020 to over 1,150 in 2021, placing the country well ahead of its neighbours Mali and Niger, the former facing 684 violent events and the latter 149. The military expenditures within the country have more than doubled under Kaboré —from roughly $150 million when he first took office in 2015 to $382 million in 2020, which may have, ironically, helped embolden the coup leaders.

Lt-Col Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba was named the leader of the newly established Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration (MPSR) and the leader of the military coup that deposed Kaboré. As a graduate of the military academy in Paris, having authored “West African Armies and Terrorism: Uncertain Responses?”, and having recently received military training from the US (as the nation increasingly turned its attention to West Africa), Damiba is seen as a suitable replacement for Kaboré, despite his plan for battling the armed groups being unclear.

The reaction to the events in Burkina Faso has been mixed. On the one hand, French President Emmanuel Macron condemned Burkina Faso’s “military coup”, and, unsurprisingly, the UN human rights office said it “deeply deplores the military takeover of power”. On the other hand, many view this event as a liberation of the country from leaders who were not suitable to solve the Islamic military problem, rather than a military coup. Additionally, among the crowds, some welcomed the coup as a sign of liberation from France, due to Paris expanding its military cooperation with Burkina Faso at President Kaboré’s request. Others carried Russian flags, calling for an intervention similar to that which occurred in the Central African Republic, where Russian mercenary forces fought off an armed uprising last year and provided military assistance in Mali. There are no known Russian troops in Burkina Faso currently, and it is unclear if the country’s new military ruler, Lt. Col. Damiba, wants them to come. The warm welcome received by Russia in some African nations is starkly contrasted with the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, where the United States and its NATO allies fear an imminent invasion.

The increase of coups in the region does not mean an increase of unstable and irregular transfers of power, but rather a greater acceptance of politics by the gun. The normalisation of armies as political actors inevitably means the use of the military toolkit in politics. The growing support for army intervention, and less interest in preventing coups during these times, may cause concern for the ending of democracy in certain regions.

What will happen next? The ideal outcome the Burkinabé are expecting from Lt. Col. Damiba is the protection from Islamist militants. Despite Burkina Faso’s military citing the government’s failure to solve the insurgency as justification for taking power, the army may find itself even more starved of resources, especially if sanctions are imposed. The regional economic bloc, known as ECOWAS, is currently deciding whether to impose sanctions on Burkina Faso, as it did on Mali and Guinea following their coups last year. Similarly, the US is considering withdrawing aid to the country. Only time will tell what the outcomes for Burkina Faso will be.

Image: Flickr (Ari Zoldan)



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